Spatial heterogeneity of stream water nutrient concentrations over successional time

C. Lisa Dent, Nancy Grimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


Nutrient availability in ecosystems is patchy both in space and in time. Whereas temporal trends have often been studied, less information exists on spatial patterns of nutrient availability, particularly in aquatic ecosystems. The goals of this study were (1) to describe and quantify patterns of nutrient concentration in surface waters of an arid land stream and (2) to compare spatial patterns of nutrient availability across nutrients and over a successional sequence. We describe changes in the spatial pattern of stream water nutrient concentrations over successional time (between floods) using quantitative measures of heterogeneity. Samples were collected from the middle of the channel every-25 m over a 10-km section of a Sonoran Desert stream during three periods: early succession (2 wk post-flood), middle succession (2 mo post-flood), and late succession (9 mo post-flood). Nutrient concentrations were extremely variable in space (coefficients of variations as high as 145%). Coefficients of variation increased over successional time and were consistently greater for nitrate-nitrogen than for soluble reactive phosphorus. Semi-variogram analysis showed that nutrient concentrations were spatially dependent on all dates, but to different degrees and over different distances. The distance over which nutrient concentrations were spatially dependent, as measured by the semi-variogram range, tended to decrease with successional time. The strength of spatial dependence, as measured by the slope of the ascending limb of the semivariogram, increased with successional time. The limiting nutrient, nitrogen, was consistently more spatially heterogeneous than phosphorus or conductivity, both in terms of patch size (range) and strength of spatial dependence. In streams, downstream transport combined with nutrient transformation produces patches of similar nutrient concentrations that are elongated compared with nutrient patches in terrestrial soils variation in nutrient concentration is likely to affect the spatial distribution of organisms and rates of ecosystem processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2283-2298
Number of pages16
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1999


  • Desert streams
  • Geostatistics
  • Heterogeneity
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrients
  • Patch
  • Scale
  • Spatial variability
  • Succession
  • Variograms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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